He could reach the phone on the night table. He called John.
“I’m paralyzed from the waist down.”
“Oh, Richard, since when?”
“Last night. It was definite by last night.”
Neither spoke again for the next forty-five minutes. Richard held the phone and John held the phone. Richard was in Texas. John was in Idaho. “Easy to find me,” John sometimes joked. “I’m the only black man here. See one, that’s me.” No joking now. They held the phones and said nothing. The line was open but not otherwise put to use. Richard could picture John at his kitchen table sipping coffee, Mary Beth fixing his lunch on the counter between the sink and refrigerator. She still wrapped his sandwiches in waxed paper. Found it somewhere. Waxed paper, the same Lebanon bologna with buttered bread and mustard John liked when they were kids. The next in a line of thousands of apples. Two saltines, smeared with peanut butter, pressed together and carefully wrapped. A hardboiled egg that had been shelled awaiting its turn. John’s old thermos with more coffee. Her glances at him holding the phone and saying nothing. His grieving face still and distant, the amalgamation of fifty-one years since he met Richard in first grade, of losses and passings and so many recent prayers: Lord, not Richard. Please not Richard. Over and over again in John’s face: Let Richard live. Let Richard live.
His nurse came in and touched his right foot. Nothing. Left foot. Nothing. She grasped his right thigh, wasted almost to bone. Nothing. His eyes followed her without expression. She removed the drip bags and replaced them with full bags from her cart. She bent over so that he could see the crown of her orange hair, black roots showing. Exchanged a full urine bag for an empty one. Went into his bathroom and scrubbed her hands. Dried them. He could hear the blower roaring. Then it snapped off as suddenly as it had begun.
They held the phones, each to his left ear, until Richard placed his on the pillow and let his head drop on it so that he could hear John saying nothing by squeezing the phone there while looking out the window, beyond which spread a sunny day.
He thought of fishing with John, biking with John, the two of them folding newspapers on the cool cement floor of John’s father’s garage before slipping them into their canvas shoulder bags and heading out to deliver them. 1963. Twelve years old. The cement as smooth and hard as marble. The fresh ink on the newsprint ripe and pungent.
John, too, caught up in those memories. Two boys, two men, one life. The first time they saw snow–together. The first time they saw the ocean, the Gulf of Mexico–together. Richard’s early habit of rubbing his left index finger back and forth across his lips. Both of them always big enough to be black in Texas. Richard would tell a white boy he could try, but he couldn’t give him a black eye, whereas he, Richard, certainly could make that boy’s eye black. Now leave us alone afore you get hurt.
The line open, alive, electro-telepathic, conjoining them. The paralysis would come, the prostate cancer would do it. Now it had done it, but this life, these memories. Christmas in Idaho. John, where have you moved? That isn’t Texas snow out there; that snow’s gonna stay. You bet it’s gonna stay. They went for a walk in it, silent then, too, the air thrilling to breathe, the weather cleared, spic and span, the women and children back at John’s house still caught up in the gifts and getting dinner ready, the men marveling at the white burdened boughs of the utterly still Douglas firs. No air stirring. No sound until John said it would go on like this for two or three months that far north, way up in Idaho’s chimney, almost to Canada. Good word for it, wasn’t it, especially on Christmas day, chimney? Richard said yes, but when they were boys they’d said chimbley. Now why had they done that? Because our people came from North Carolina; that’s how they said it over there, John answered. And now here you are three full tanks of gas from Texas, God knows how far from Carolina, Richard said. All right, all right, John conceded. He had to find work, didn’t he? So up here in the chimbley, that’s how far he’d had to climb.
They pressed their ears to the phone, confronting what Richard had now said. He could not feel, much less walk on a snowy Christmas day. That part of him was over, and the cancer would soon take the rest. John did not have to ask. Gwen had told Mary Beth who had broken it to him: his Richard was bald, his Richard’s skin was more gray than black and his Richard had asked them to stop the pills–they made him hallucinate. He did not want to see the television slide down from where it was mounted on the wall. He did not want to think there was someone else on his bed he had to give room. He preferred the morphine even though it was penetrated sometimes by a sharp sword blade of pain. Nor any more chemo. No, no, no.
Why talk on a phone? Why talk at all if you didn’t have to? Why not take comfort in the unbreakable, unshakeable, trustworthy silence, let it draw you in, gather you up, keep you together?
They were twenty minutes that way when Gwen arrived with her things–her knitting, her book, her notepad, the pillow she put on the fake white leather chair where she had sat, day after day, for over a month–and saw Richard lying half on his side, the phone squeezed between his pillow and his skull.
Another ten minutes passed. Neither man spoke, though neither watchful wife could know that one of them was not listening to the other’s talk, only the other’s simple silent togetherness. Boys and men. Richard to college, John not. John marveling at this girl Gwen Richard had snagged when he came to the campus to visit. Next time he brought Mary Beth, she had to see what Richard had gone and done. That quadrangle. That vigilant tower with its clock and bells. Richard’s engineering books arranged neatly on the shelf above his desk where there was also a photograph of his friend John, a photograph of Gwen, and eventually a photograph of John and Mary Beth, who couldn’t wait, the day they married in the church where John and Richard were christened and baptized and all their grandparents’ funerals were held.
There was no set time nor need for any set time and never had been. Both knew when things were coming to an end, time to turn back. In the chimney of Idaho, on the beach at Padre Island, at home outside Houston on the edge of what wanted to be a prairie and never made it because, John said, the oil rigs sucked up the water, too. Just come time and both knew it had come. This far, no further. That hill, then turn back. To this cove, surf cast, catch nothing, then return to the vacation cottage where both families squeezed in, kids on top of each other like puppies. Skunked again? Mary Beth asked. Richard’s little grin. John’s position: he had never been skunked fishing in his life; only put back all the fish he’d caught because of their similarity to Richard’s big feet. Eat that? Gracious, no. But some day surely he’d catch one that didn’t resemble something no way he would ever eat.
It could remain open essentially forever. Once upon a time party lines you had to get off out of courtesy as well as cost. No longer. No cost for a private call anywhere in the country, and it could go on and on. The hospital had built it into its overhead. The insurance company had built it into its premiums. All you needed was time, not money, time. Say nothing to one another forever.
Another ten, then fifteen minutes passed as the two men remained together, one close to Canada, the other one deep back at home.
At last, at last, Richard said, “Thank you, John. Thank you for everything. Goodbye.”
He listened to John crying until Gwen could see he could not bear it any longer. She put aside her knitting, stood up, and eased the phone from between the pillow and Richard’s ear.
More silence in the room. Her turn now to help carry it. She stood there under its weight, stroking his cheek, looking at him looking out the window at the bright blue sky.
Photo by nomilknocry